What Am I Reading, and Why: The Luminaries, Among Others, and Station 11

three covers

For 2015, I am trying to get more women into my life. Before you start worrying too much about me and Barbara, let me explain!

My three most recent books were wildly different from each other. The Luminaries is a historical murder mystery set in 1860s New Zealand goldfields. Among Others is your classical story set in an alienating boarding school, but instead of wizarding being the escape, it is a passion for science fiction and fantasy books that allows the troubled teen to find friends, romance, and connect with family. And Station 11 is an equally classic post-Apocalyptic science fiction story about what would happen if 99.99% of humanity died from a plague, but told through the eyes of various characters connected through a pivotal shared moment.

Not much in common thematically. Two of the authors were born in Canada, but are now writing from New York and New Zealand. (No prizes for guessing which one wrote the goldfields book!) But the third author is British – Welsh, in fact. Two were serious award winners: The Luminaries won the Man Booker prize, and Among Others won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which are the two most important science fiction awards, but Station 11 has no trophies (so far.)

No, the thing that the three books have in common is that they were written by women…and (in my case) read by a man. And that’s more unusual than it should be.

According to one UK survey, 90% of the most-read titles read by men were written by men. Before we get too critical of men, the same number for women was also 90%…or 92%, if you account for the fact that one of the male authors was JK Rowling writing under a male pseudonym!

I’m not surprised that each gender prefers books written in our own sex’s authorial voice. But 90% seems crazy high to me, and as a staunch feminist I’d like to say that I am above such things. But it’s not true: although I have many favourite female authors (Austen, Atwood, Rowling, Carson McCullers, MFK Fisher, Susanna Clarke, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Suzanne Collins, Caitlin Moran, and so on) my own bookshelves are 80-90% male authors. Even the three books I just read with female authors were all gifts.

I obviously have a hidden cognitive bias in favour of male writers and against females. I’m not going to vow to spend a year reading only women: that isn’t my style. But going forward, each time I think about buying a new book, I am going to try to be mindful. All else being equal, why not opt for the women authors?

I loved each of the three books I just finished, so my rational brain knows that I will enjoy the books just as much. But fighting cognitive biases is hard.

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